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Gay, Peter ("Jack")

GAY, Peter ("Jack")

(b. 20 June 1923 in Berlin, Germany), author, historian, and political scientist, whose studies of the Enlightenment and the Victorian era changed how historians viewed the people of those times.

Born Peter Joachim Fröhlich, Gay changed his name when he came to the United States, with "gay" being the English translation for fröhlich. His father Morris Peter Fröhlich was a Jewish businessman, and his mother Helga Kohnke, a homemaker. Gay was their only child. Gay's father was a decorated veteran of World War I and a Social Democrat. The takeover of Germany by the Nazis seemed unbelievable to the Fröhlichs, but by 1936 they were alienated enough from the German government to cheer for the Americans during the Olympics held in Berlin. In 1938 the gentile partner of Morris Fröhlich confiscated Fröhlich's share of their company.

In 1939 the Fröhlichs fled to Cuba, among the last Jews to escape from Germany before the Nazis attempted to annihilate all Jews as part of the so-called Final Solution. They managed to immigrate to the United States in 1941, settling in Denver, Colorado, a location they chose because Helga Fröhlich had tuberculosis and required treatment in a sanatorium. Gay's father had trouble finding work at more than the minimum wage, and Gay had to drop out of East High School in his senior year to find full-time work to help support his family. Gay was determinedly shedding all vestiges of his German heritage, and he later remembered, "The … feeling of relief to have escaped … was overshadowed … by the fact that there were others who had not … and a frantic concern with what we could do about them."

Gay entered the University of Denver in 1943, working full time during the day and studying at night. In 1946 he not only graduated from college with a bachelor's degree, but he also became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Gay then went to graduate school at Columbia University, earning a master's degree in political science in 1947. In 1948 he became an instructor at Columbia, and in 1951, he received his doctorate in political science. In his scholarly career, he was interested in what had gone wrong in Germany, and his dissertation concerned the work of a turn-of-the-century political theorist, Eduard Bernstein. He published his dissertation as The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein's Challenge to Marx in 1952.

On 30 May 1959 Gay married Ruth Slotkin, a writer who had three children from a previous marriage; the couple had no children of their own. During the 1950s Gay became interested in the Enlightenment and wrote Voltaire's Politics: The Poet as Realist (1959). He followed this with a translation of Voltaire's Candide (1963). Although Gay was successful in his literary career, he was losing his hopes of tenure in the political science department at Columbia; however, the history department provided him with a tenure-track position, and he was promoted to professor in 1962. His next book was a collection of articles he had written for scholarly magazines, The Party of Humanity: Essays in the French Enlightenment (1964).

In 1966 Gay published three books. The first was a Time-Life book, Age of Enlightenment. Another was The Loss of Mastery: Puritan Historians in Colonial America, a collection of the Jefferson Memorial lectures he had delivered that year at the University of California, Berkeley. The third book was The Rise of Modern Paganism, which was volume one of the two-volume set, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. Its thesis was that the intellectuals of the Age of Enlightenment had rejected Christianity and adapted classical philosophy to create deism. An atheist himself, Gay seems to have been especially interested in how modern atheism originated.

The Rise of Modern Paganism became a landmark in historical writings because of its synthesis of divergent views of the people of the Enlightenment. Gay argued that the Enlightenment philosophers were not "responsible for the evil of the modern age," as some critics had charged. Further, the Enlightenment was not marked by "superficial rationalism, foolish optimism, and irresponsible Utopianism," as it was sometimes depicted in history books. On the other hand, the admirers of the Enlightenment were also superficial in their writings; thus, Gay rejected the "malice" of one view and the "naïveté"of the other.

The volume was greeted by praise from historians. It was regarded as sensible and rational, and it was expected to change how people regarded the Enlightenment. Among historians, the volume was considered revolutionary, as it applied common sense in understanding the figures of the Enlightenment as well-rounded human beings with strengths and weaknesses. Gay had developed a friendly, relaxed literary style that made The Rise of Modern Paganism accessible to the general reader. In 1967 Gay received the National Book Award for the volume.

Gay also was honored with the position of William R. Shepherd Professor of History at Columbia, a post he held from 1967 to 1969. The political and cultural failure of Germany continued to puzzle and interest Gay, and he expanded four lectures into Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (1968). This book focused on Germany from 1918 to 1933, examining the arts of the period and trying to decipher how a humane culture could succumb to the Nazis.

Gay left Columbia in 1969 to take a position at Yale University as professor of comparative European history. Gay served as the Durfee Professor of History from 1970 to 1984, and as the Sterling Professor of History from 1984 to 1993, when he was named professor emeritus. That year the second volume of The EnlightenmentAn Interpretation: The Science of Freedom—was published. The Science of Freedom was a social history in which Gay put the philosophers of the Enlightenment into the context of their own cultures. He contended that the societies of the era provided an environment in which reason could thrive. In addition, he contended that one of the strengths of the era was atheism, which, he argued, enabled people of the age to gain true, objective views of their lives and of their world. Gay posited that the American Revolution was the embodiment of atheistic rationality and proof to the philosophers that human beings had the capacity for self-rule.

Gay went on to write many other books, the most notable of which were the four volumes of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud (1984, 1986, 1993, and 1995). Gay had trained in psychoanalysis from 1976 to 1983 at Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis, and he applied what he learned to the people of the Victorian period, arguing that the Victorians were not sexually repressed and that historians had failed to consider how much ordinary people, especially the middle class, contributed to the arts and culture of the era.

Gay's books usually generated more interest among academics than the public, but his witty style sometimes won him an audience among general readers, especially history buffs. His two-volume The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, increased in reputation during the succeeding decades, becoming very influential among teachers.

Gay long felt estranged from his home country and even refused to speak or write in German for many years after fleeing Germany; his autobiography, My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin (1998), helps to explain his mixed feelings towards the land of his birth. Additionally, Linda Metzger and Deborah A. Straub, eds., Contemporary Authors: New Revision Series 18 (1986), features a biographical sketch, astute criticism by Bryan Ryan, and an interview by Walter W. Ross.

Kirk H. Beetz

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